Bears players at a practice for the 2016 season. | Nam Y. Huh/AP

Political football: Bears battle players union over workers’ comp

SHARE Political football: Bears battle players union over workers’ comp
SHARE Political football: Bears battle players union over workers’ comp

It’s a big-money game involving sports, injured athletes and state government.

The Bears and Chicago’s four other major pro sports teams are pushing Illinois lawmakers to change part of the state’s workers’ compensation system — a move that’s set off shock waves from Chicago to Springfield to Super Bowl festivities in Houston.

The teams want legislators to reduce the maximum age at which pro athletes can draw “wage differential” workers’ comp benefits from 67 to 35, arguing that their playing careers — and thus their earnings from the franchises — rarely extend beyond their mid-30s.

The proposal has sparked outrage from pro-football players. Speaking to reporters before the Super Bowl in Texas, NFL players’ union boss DeMaurice Smith called it an “intellectually, philosophically and morally offensive” measure aimed at keeping money in the pockets of the Bears-owning McCaskey family.

And in a legislative hearing in Springfield on Jan. 24, an attorney who represents pro athletes blamed the McCaskeys for the proposal, calling them “a bunch of lucky folks who did nothing more than get born with a good last name and the ownership of an NFL team.”

John McAndrews — an attorney who has represented the Bears for two decades — declined to comment Friday on those statements, though he acknowledged the Bears have borne “the lightning rod of criticism” on the issue.

The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission — which resolves disputes between employers and employees in work-related injury cases — has handled 417 cases related to professional athletes within the last 10 years, officials said.

The age-change issue for pro athletes is just one part of a complex workers’ comp reform bill that could be voted on as soon as next week. The Bears, White Sox, Bulls, Cubs and Blackhawks together have written Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, and state Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, in support of it.

“We have spoken with many experts who deal with workers’ compensation claims for professional athletes, and they have all stated that the laws in Illinois are extremely generous as compared to the workers’ compensation laws in other states,” the teams wrote on Jan. 27.

“Although the law accurately assumes that most employees will retire around the age of 67, professional athletes are an exception, as most retire in their twenties or thirties.”

Michigan has limited highly paid professional athletes from collecting wage-differential benefits, according to the letter. And professional athletes also are treated differently than other workers in Florida, Texas and Missouri.

Workers’ comp is on the frontburner largely because Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and other GOP lawmakers believe the current system is harming the state’s economy, with Illinois employers spending about $3 billion per year on workers’ comp costs. Democrats have branded some of their workers’ comp reform ideas anti-union, yet another reason both sides have yet to approve a state budget.

Currently, professional athletes can file workers’ comp claims within three years of an injury. If athletes file for career-ending or very serious injuries, they can be awarded “wage differentials” amounting to two-thirds of the difference between their pre-injury and post-injury wages.

In Illinois, that number is capped at $1,075 a week, or $55,900 a year. That means a professional athlete, or any other person in Illinois who is awarded a wage differential award can be paid that maximum amount until they are 67.

The teams want the wage-differential clause to be changed to 35, thereby reducing their costs. But they point out the proposed change wouldn’t affect athletes’ ability to apply for “total disability” benefits in the event their injuries end their ability to ever work again.

McAndrews, the aforementioned lawyer representing the Bears, described the proposed change as a “market correction.”

“The bill doesn’t have anything to do with a restriction on future medical benefits,” McAndrews said. “It also doesn’t restrict any of the remedy available under the workers’ compensation act or any collectively bargained remedy that the players have under their collective bargaining plans.

“It merely seeks to provide some conformity with reality: The fact that most professional athletes’ careers, specifically professional football players’ average, are two to four years long.”

In his testimony before a Senate panel last month, Richard Gordon, a private workers’ compensation lawyer who works with the National Football League Players Association and represents current and former NFL players, argued the proposed age change is against the equal protection clause of the Illinois Constitution.

He also noted it would affect relatively lower-paid professional athletes on the Chicago Fire soccer team, the Chicago Sky women’s basketball team, the Chicago Wolves minor-league hockey team and other minor-league pro teams.

Noting a Forbes estimate of the Bears being worth $2.7 billion, Gordon took aim at the McCaskeys.

“The Bears are a self-insured entity. So even if you were to pass this bill under the idea that you’re somehow saving money for those businesses and that’s going to go back to the insurance company who are going to lower their premiums, that’s not what going to happen here,” he said. “This money is going straight to the McCaskeys pockets. Money for the McCaskey family — a bunch of lucky folks who did nothing more than get born with a good last name and the ownership of an NFL team.”

On Friday, Gordon told the Sun-Times “to say essentially that we should only be on the hook for our liability for those injuries, until you’re 35 years old, as opposed to the rest of your life, that just seems incredibly unfair and unbalanced when you consider the billions of dollars that these players put collectively into the pockets of these owners.”

The union representing NFL players isn’t being quiet about their distaste for the change. Speaking to reporters at a Houston press conference ahead of the Super Bowl, NFL Players Association Executive Director Smith called the change an effort by the Bears which is “intellectually, philosophically and morally offensive.”

“It’s economically offensive because under the collective bargaining agreement, we actually provide each and every team a credit for that team’s worker’s compensation insurance. So this is not an issue about taxpayer money being spent on player worker’s comp,” Smith said. “This is just another way of an owner being cheap. . . .”

Smith urged Bears players to fight against the change. The NFLPA fought off similar changes in workers’ compensation in North Carolina and in Louisiana.

“The entire [New Orleans] Saints team drove down to Baton Rouge and burst in on a Legislature that thought they were going to do the same thing,” Smith said. “I’m confident that the leadership of the Bears and the Bears team will step up to the same fight.”

Patrick Finley reported from Houston

Contributing: Adam Jahns

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